Weakening Hamas is one of the key reasons for maintaining the controversial blockade of Gaza. Hamas says that there will be no truce without a lifting of the blockade, while Israel’s central demand is a disarming of the Gaza Strip. What do we really know about the effectiveness of the blockade in achieving this aim? Has the blockade of Gaza in fact substantially weakened Hamas?
Not really. The available evidence demonstrates that at least in terms of Palestinian public opinion, Hamas is now stronger than when these policies went into effect.
No nationally representative public opinion surveys have been conducted among Palestinians since the latest round of military strikes began. However, data from previous surveys offer insight into the effect of Israel’s attempts to isolate Gaza. The blockade, put in force shortly after Hamas’s military takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, has restricted trade in and out of Gaza, financial transactions and the movement of people, making the territory, in the words of the Economist, “the world’s biggest open-air prison.” Yet rather than declining, opinion polls show that support for Hamas steadily increased after the blockade was imposed.
In 2006, Hamas’s popularity was widespread, nationally winning the support of nearly half (44.5 percent) of Palestinians in the parliamentary elections. Following this high point, polls from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) reveal a decline in support for Hamas in Gaza. This trend continued six months following the Palestinian civil war in June 2007 and the subsequent imposition of the Israeli blockade, reaching a nadir of 24 percent in December 2007. Yet, as the full effects of Israel’s blockade of Gaza began to be felt, Hamas’s fortunes in the territory began to change. From early 2008 to 2010, its support gradually increased to roughly 40 percent. Soon after Israel’s partial easing of the blockade in 2010, Hamas’s support leveled off, typically ranging within five percentage points of 40 percent through 2013. In the most recent poll in June 2014, support for Hamas stood at 35 percent, still well above its support in late 2007.
In addition to not leading to a decrease in support for Hamas, survey data from the three waves of the Arab Barometer suggest that the blockade has not had the expected effect on public opinion. Despite well-documented hardships endured since the imposition of the blockade, Gazans are now more likely to rate economic conditions as positive than before it took effect. In 2006, just 12 percent said the economic situation was good or very good, which rose to 33 percent in December 2010 and 49 percent in December 2012.
This change is clearly linked to the blockade being only somewhat effective at stopping goods from getting to Gaza. However, economic shortages linked to the blockade are also not being felt equally by all Gazans, as it strongly appears Hamas has been able to meet the needs of its own. For example, in 2012, the vast majority (71 percent) of Hamas supporters in Gaza said they were satisfied with the economic situation. By comparison, just 36 percent with no party affiliation and 30 percent who support Fatah said the same. In other words, instead of pressuring Hamas, a key effect of the blockade has been to make life more difficult for opponents of the movement. And those who wish to benefit economically are incentivized to remain tied to Hamas. It appears that the blockade has made some Gazans more dependent on Hamas – since Hamas is the only capable entity that can skillfully navigate the blockade through tunnels and other smuggling routes.
The economic incentives to join Hamas may explain, in part, what appears to be a broadening of its overall base. Hamas, which espouses an Islamic fundamentalist ideology merged with Palestinian nationalism, has seen its support increase despite a significant decline in the percentage of Gazans who support giving religious leaders greater say in the political process. In 2006, six in ten Gazans agreed that religious leaders should have an influence in decisions of government. In 2010 and 2012, however, 44 percent held this view.
Not only did support for giving religion a greater role in politics decline among Gazans overall, but there was also a significant drop among Hamas supporters. In 2006, 74 percent supported giving religious leaders influence over government decisions. By 2010, this percentage had fallen 15 percentage points to 59 percent and 17 percentage points by 2012 (57 percent). Thus, Hamas’s increased support in Gaza is coming increasingly from those who do not support its underlying Islamist ideology.
The Arab Barometer also reveals that Gazans have become less accepting of foreign intervention during this period, implying an even more difficult path to peace than before. In 2010, eight in ten Gazans said that external demands for reform are acceptable or acceptable with conditions. By 2012, 51 percent said the same, a drop of nearly 30 percentage points. The drop was even greater among supporters of Hamas. In 2010, three-quarters believed external demands were acceptable, but about 28 percent said the same in 2012. As such, it appears that Hamas supporters became less willing to make concessions in response to outside pressure during this period.
In sum, not only has the blockade failed to stem the tide of rockets falling into the hands of Hamas, but it has also failed to weaken Hamas as a movement. If anything, Hamas appears to be stronger and have a broader base of support in Gaza than before the blockade was put in place. Despite the widespread suffering of many Gazans – particularly opponents of the movement – this outcome should not be unexpected. Hamas leaders readily admit that their popularity derives from Palestinian anger at Israeli policies. In a 2008 interview with one of the authors, a senior Hamas official said that his movement’s electoral success boiled down to a single question the movement posed to Palestinians during the 2006 campaign: “Israel and the U.S. say no to Hamas – what do you say?”
Israel’s direct attempts to confront Hamas ultimately benefit the movement and, insofar as Israel seeks to weaken Hamas, the ongoing blockade is a self-defeating strategy. Given domestic political constraints, it will be difficult if not impossible for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to lift the blockade, which could be seen as appeasing Hamas. Its lifting would also be a major victory for Hamas, at least in the short term. Yet if history is any guide, its continuation will not serve to weaken or isolate Hamas, but to help maintain its strength as a movement.
Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is the director of the Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer). His work on Arab public opinion, political Islam and political parties has been published in Comparative Political Studies, the Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Democracy. Amaney Jamal (@AmaneyJamal) is a professor of politics at Princeton University as well as director of the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the Workshop on Arab Political Development. She co-directs the Arab Barometer project.